poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
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nathalie stephens is truly bilingual and writes in both English and French. Born in Montréal in 1970 and having grown up in both Toronto and Lyon, she is the author of 7 books and 3 chapbooks, including L'embrasure (TROIS 2002), All Boy (housepress 2001),  Somewhere Running (Arsenal Pulp 2000), and UNDERGROUND (TROIS 1999). nathalie has works forthcoming next year from both VLB éditeur and Coach House Books. She currently lives in Guelph, Ontario, where she plots frequent escapes to Montréal.



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"If I had the strength to drown beneath
these walls
                between these words
I could send myself in this envelope
And you would know exactly where I am."  

Suzanne Hancock, The Time Between Forgetting


Word is want. Knocking hard up against the body.
Word is disappearance. The graven image sunk sharply into stone.
Word is echo. Breath pulling from lips hollowing out time.  

                                                                                                                        So what? Answer me.

Want. To inhabit the interstices. To reach for the in-between places. Touch what doesn’t exist. Pull stone from body broken. Mouth wide, temples beating, low groan in the abdomen. That madness. What someone said.

Jabès’ white sheet of paper.
Steiner’s trahison.

(I never said any of that).

Read or write text across genre. Fuck with the potency of pre-configured form. Rail. Or better yet, say nothing, mouth wide, temples beating, fist wedged between teeth. Write it all down. Cross it all out.

There is confusion in it. The persistent refusal of delineation. Want something hard to bite into. Something that will break. Take a new form. Spill.

What Faust asked for I got. Look inside. See nothing. Look again. I have scripted folly with a fine chisel on my leg bone. Strips of skin piled neatly on the table. You wanted this.  

Language is madness. (Truism.) I speak with cloven tongue the pull between languages. Down. Write it down. I embody trahison. Where does that leave me? Body rent, straddling perversions. I write in two languages, more. The poem emerges in no language at all (the il-language of the poem). The language of torment (rather, the tormented language), the strain of too great a weight (grammar, more grammar) pushing up against the roof of the mouth. So, to the hand rummaging through bone. The echo of teeth knocking together, head blown off the body.  


A poem is not (meant to be) a pretty thing.  

First in a string of betrayals. The book must be unwritten in order to be read. Peel hand from page. Rub ink from skin until it’s gone all gone. Pull back the covers. There is nothing there. That absence. The very thing that haunts. That threatens. That betrays. (The very thing you said.)

When a word catches in the throat it must do one of two things. It must descend further into the body. Or it must emerge through the mouth. Ejaculate, or something less projectile – drool. If it remains where it is, it will eventually constrict the windpipe altogether, severing said head from body. Breath is an ellipsis. We all live in silence.

We all live in silence.

There are theologies of madness. There are theologies of violence. There are theologies of desire. Theologies of text. Of interpretation. Of inclination. Of fucking. Of gender. Of want. All of which delineate. All of which circumscribe. All of which impede. 

Dogma. Expect the unexpected. We build walls and lean against them some of which we pull right down. We produce sexualities and live by them some of which we then refute. We write texts and publish them some of which we forget. We lose ourselves in time. We repeat ourselves, overlap, disappear, emerge, disappear again. Voice is echo. What we hear we only think we hear. As with text. In reading we disappear. Poetry is inscription. “I was here.” Blunt knife cutting into wood skin earth and no blood to show for it. 

Anne Carson: “When [Van Gogh] looked at the world he saw the nails that attach colour to things and he saw that the nails were in pain.”

Is body but pretext? Is the poem what gives it form? The thing that cannot ever be touched. I am reaching for it and I can’t feel a thing. 

Wars. It’s the forgetting. The peril of loss. The blooded incantation. Tragedy in a tight fist pummelling. And the sudden remembrance. That hews word from body. Memory is like that. It contorts and convolutes. It bludgeons. It too betrays. A poem is a forgotten thing remembered. Grief-stricken. Jubilant. A suture. Joining history to fabrication. Body to need. Mouth to mouth.  

No text is sacred. Nothing is ever for real. The earth shifts beneath our feet. We are walking in circles looking again and again at the same thing.  

First Person Plural
We is I multiplied. I understood collectively. I is the convergence of time person place. The chasm into which all things fall some of which surface at different times all at once or not at all. It is a form of lineage. A kind of history. A procession of deaths trailing across the tongue.  

March. We march.  

Beat. We beat.  

Love. We love.

And in between the poem falls into place. Or perhaps is pulled from there. From mite-infested crevices. From pools of stagnant water. From narrow-necked vials of poison.  

A poem is a thing of danger. A meeting place. A refusal. A cry. What reaches the reader is the echo. Of words moving through time space. Of bodies in heat walking along a rushing river beneath a full moon in summer. Or standing under a stone archway the river stilled by ice in a crystalline city. Somewhere between night and day.

A poem is a city under siege. A dismembered body. A slow or sudden death, ça revient au même. Poem is place is geography. A travelogue of desire. All the things the body knows and won’t divulge. 

To read is to fetishize. Perhaps the same can be said of writing, pourquoi pas? As I write I cross myself out. I move toward nothing. I strive for words that are corporeal. Yet I write in abstraction. This néant, I want to hold it in my hands, push it into my mouth, dissolve (in) it.  

What is the literary equivalent of absolution? Jabès’ white page? An unwritten text? An underlined passage in my copy of your book?  

See me. (Don’t look).

 These are all concepts. Theories. Fabrication.

In Le Journal de Sarah, Jabès writes: “Je ne veux plus être lue.”  

I is a disappearing act. A desire always to be in a new place speaking a different language reading an unfamiliar text. The refutation of lineage, of precepts, antecedents. When I look over my shoulder I see nothing. When I open a door a room vanishes. When I track constellations they reformulate themselves. When I kiss you I find myself alone. When you touch me I am long gone. When you speak my name I don’t answer. Because I doesn’t exist. Or rather, exists only in relation to the wall against which I leans. Without walls, I becomes the much sought-after néant. That which it is. The unread book. The unwritten poem. The unseen city. Breath. What is possible but unattempted. Freedom. Imagined or real.  


Who do you betray when you read? What folly do you engage in when you live by rote?

Jeanette Winterson writes: “I am a woman going mad.”  

To which I reply: We are all women going mad. We are both and neither. That is the only credible certainty.

Some time last summer I wrote: “There are cities still in need of falling.” It is a mistake to believe oneself to be a forgone conclusion, to haunt oneself so. It is just another way of courting danger, of falling face first into the same pile of shit. Emotion is conjecture. A synaptic response to the absence of sound. When you look into the future what do you see? Whose voice do you hear? And do you dare answer back?  

Things come undone they do.

Many years ago my body left me. I am not the books I write. I am not the house I live in. I am not the name you give me. I am not the people I fuck. I am not the gender you ascribe.

I write myself into a hole and I plot my own escape. Words are the prisons we inhabit. The prisons that inhabit us. There’s no telling what desires await us, what poems will emerge.

That is the trahison of which I speak. The page as I understand it. The poem as I know it. Today. Now.  

I would have begun with these words of Kafka’s: “I consist of nothing but spikes that go into me.” I would then have been saying something altogether different. I would have courted you otherwise. It would have changed everything. The lean of the body toward or away from the page. Still, inside the words, it would have been me. More or less.

Read (to) me. I will disappear

from side/lines: a new canadian poetics (ed. rob mclennan, 2002, Insomniac Press, Toronto). reprinted with permission.

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